Why the chemicals are considered of concern:
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are synthetic chemicals added to foam cushioning, plastics, and other materials used in a variety of consumer products to make them less likely to catch fire and burn. PBDEs are suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals, with neurobehavioral effects, identified by the EPA as the critical health impact of concern for humans.
Animal studies on PBDEs indicate concerns for liver, thyroid, and neurodevelopmental toxicity. For example, long-lasting behavioral changes have been observed in animals exposed to PBDEs. Research has revealed that exposure of rats to certain PBDEs while in the womb caused reproductive abnormalities in adulthood in both males and females, including reduced sperm count and altered structure of ovary cells.
The available animal data for a specific PBDE, decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE), provides “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” and as such EPA has classified decaBDE as a possible human carcinogen. EPA states that it is not possible to classify the cancer-causing potential of other PBDEs, due to the lack of sufficient human or animal cancer data.
A few epidemiological studies have examined the effects of PBDEs directly in humans. In 2010, a study published by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health and the U.S. Centers or Disease Control (CDC), found that higher levels of fetal exposure to PBDEs resulted in lower scores on tests of mental (e.g., IQ scores) and physical development at later infant, toddler, and child ages. Another study found that women exposed to high levels of flame retardants take longer to become pregnant.
Pathways of environmental and human exposures to PBDEs are not fully defined, but are likely to include releases from their manufacture, the manufacturing of products containing them, age and wear of PBDE-containing products, and disposal and recycling of those products. The release of PBDEs into the environment from these multiple sources—virtually all points along the chemicals’ lifecycle—ultimately leads to their presence in our food, homes, and bodies.
In the last few decades, PBDEs have become ubiquitous persistent organic pollutants. They bioaccumulate in the environment, biomagnify up the food chain, and have been detected in significant amounts in animals as well as humans. In the U.S. food supply, fish have the highest PBDE levels, followed by meat and dairy products; however, given the food consumption patterns in this country, meat is estimated to be the major source of PBDEs from diet.
Infants and toddlers appear to have the highest body burden of PBDEs owing to concurrent exposures from PBDEs in maternal breast milk and house dust. PBDE levels are higher in the breast milk of women living in North America (U.S. and Canada) compared to women living in Europe, Asia, or Australia. Further, the U.S. CDC has detected PBDEs in 99 to 100% of pregnant American women. Exposure through house dust has been estimated to account for more than 80% of toddler exposure to PBDEs. All told, it is estimated that children are exposed to PBDE levels 3-4 times higher than adults.
Where they are found:
The use of halogenated flame retardants, a broad family of compounds that includes PBDEs, has increased over the past several decades. As some are banned or restricted, others are introduced. They remain common in many consumer products from electronics, to furniture, to carpet padding, to clothing and children’s products.
Because they are added to materials—like plastics and foams—rather than chemically bound to them, PBDEs can migrate from those materials and enter into our environment. PBDEs have become widespread environmental pollutants and are detected in water, soil and air as well as animal and human tissues.
Limited U.S. regulation:
In 2004 the production and import of two significant PBDEs, pentaBDE and octaBDE, was stopped. U.S. regulations are now in place to require notification to EPA prior to any new production or import, which reduces the likelihood of their reintroduction. However, it is important to note that these regulations only extend to the chemicals themselves and not to the chemicals present in imported products. EPA is working on regulations that would address this remaining source of pentaBDE, octaBDE, and decaBDE. The European Union has explicitly banned pentaBDE and octaBDE. The ban also prohibits products containing them from being on the market. A number of U.S. states have banned penta- and octaBDE.
DecaBDE is the most widely used PBDE globally, and it is still produced in the U.S. and Europe. However, the major U.S. manufacturers and importers of decaBDE recently announced that they will phase out production and import of decaBDE by the end of 2013. Similar to existing regulations for pentaBDE and octaBDE, EPA is working on regulations that would effectively restrict decaBDE reintroduction after its anticipated 2013 phase out.
As use of PBDEs is reduced, they are being replaced by other flame-retardant chemicals or by materials, such as a wool layer surrounding furniture foam, that are inherently resistant to fire. EPA has conducted an assessment of alternatives to commercial pentaBDE for use in low-density polyurethane foam, and has begun a study of alternatives to commercial decaBDE.
While production and use of some commercial PBDE mixtures have been phased out or are soon to be phased out, these PBDEs will continue to be present in the environment for many years. This is for two reasons. First, products previously manufactured with phased out PBDEs (e.g., sofas) stay in use for years. PBDEs will continue to be released from these products while they remain in use, and further release from these products will likely occur when they are disposed of or recycled. Second, PBDEs do not breakdown easily and persist in the environment and in people and other animals. So even if all further production and use ceased, the PBDEs already present in the environment will be with us for many years.
A number of advocacy groups argue that California’s Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), a flammability standard for upholstered furniture, has driven and sustained toxic flame retardant usage throughout the U.S. Furniture makers and other companies accountable to TB 117 typically make their products for the entire country in accordance with California’s flammability standard. Recently, California State Senator Mark Leno sought to pass the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act (SB 147) that would update TB 117 to maintain fire safety without the use of toxic chemicals. Proponents of SB 147 argue that it would empower consumers to choose and purchase furniture that is fire-safe and non-toxic. Though the law did not pass, it elevated conversation about whether flame retardants do more harm than good.
Finally, earlier this year Wal-Mart banned PBDEs from all products sold in its stores, effective June 1, 2011, and will begin testing to ensure products do not contain them.
What Can be Done:
Finding alternatives to products that contain PBDEs is challenging, but for some products there are options. Organic bedding and mattresses use natural fibers, layering organic cotton with wool (which is a natural flame retardant). Some couch manufacturers are starting to supply couches with alternative foam cushioning that does not contain flame retardants as well. Though few options are made without any chemical flame retardants, so it's best to ask the vendor and manufacturer specifics when trying to avoid these chemicals.
What Should be Done:
While businesses can improve the chemicals marketplace in some scenarios, such as with voluntarily phasing out pentaBDE and octaBDE, waiting for companies to take action is not a comprehensive solution for ensuring chemicals are safe for the public and the environment. Relying on the marketplace to take action on its own has not been effective, as evident by the fact there are tens of thousands of chemicals on the market with insufficient health and safety data – including new flame retardants.
We need an overhaul of current U.S. chemicals policy under the outdated Toxics Substances Control Act. A new legal foundation for sound and comprehensive chemicals policy will ensure that everyone is protected from toxic chemicals and will help spur industry to design and choose safer alternatives. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 was introduced by Senator Lautenberg in April. Use this link to ask your Senators to co-sponsor and support this new legislation and bring it to the floor of during this Congress.
Have you looked/found alternatives for products containing flame retardants? If so, help others save time by sharing your experience!